Evaluating consumer contempt for EA
In an annual survey from The Consumerist – an independent consumer advocacy site – an overwhelming majority of online poll respondents suggests EA is the “Worst Company in America”. EA was placed above companies with severe, tangible impacts on American life, passing returning competitor Bank of America in the final round of a March Madness-style bracket.
A win for Bank of America would have meant very little. They’ve been on the list for several consecutive years and haven’t changed. The same goes for Comcast. EA’s fresh meat and that’s always more fun. Also, they’re one of the few companies that such a list might have a tangible impact on. If the idea’s to vote with the consumer’s best interest in mind, and if anything reflects real change as a result, the internet’s made the right choice.
My perception of EA, as a publisher, is one founded by a series of short-term investments in developers at the peak of their creativity, soon followed by the consequences of being owned by a publisher that buys talent, rather than cultivating it internally. Best case scenario is nothing changes. Worst case scenario is closure or the developer gets assimilated into another. This happens too often in the industry and it’s the downside of putting a price on creativity. Yet, the true consequences of buying out a developer usually aren’t apparent from the start. Let them develop a few titles and after the honeymoon period’s worn off, see if anything’s changed.
Today, BioWare’s a huge brand. They went from developing consistently great role-playing games to also working on shooters, a licensed MMORPG, and an upcoming RTS, all within a generation. Apart from that and the obnoxiously effective ad campaigns, I don’t feel EA’s had much effect on BioWare’s output. There’s more money there and the production values are higher. It’s worrying that the name’s become a brand onto itself and one that’s bridging the gap with a Command & Conquer, a series that illustrates EA’s rocky history of handling developers. When they were brought on, BioWare came as a package deal with Pandemic, and the publisher announced they’d both be working on innovative new IPs. Pandemic was shuttered before their first new IP shipped and BioWare’s only made one new IP, in Dragon Age. This is usually the end result I find with EA: sometimes their developers do pretty well, but overall, their deals never live up to the hype.
Part of the contempt is invited. EA sees great, successful ideas and invests in a developer they want to see following that path. BioWare’s become the second-rate Blizzard while DICE are now pursuing a market that’s untrue to their fanbase. EA have some of the best developers in the industry working off a sales roadmap informed by the competition’s strengths. In the unlikely scenario they emerge in the lead, it can only come as a kind of Pyrrhic victory.
This also goes for their approach to digital distribution. EA’s answer to entering the PC market was to make a less consumer-friendly equivalent to Steam in ‘Origin’ (meant as a throwback to another dev they put under?) They made an unexpected move, launching Battlefield 3 exclusively on the new service for PC. It’s become a far bigger player than anyone anticipated but it’s still a lackluster carbon-copy of someone else’s design. However, there are defining differences. For one, signing up for Origin means signing over consumer rights at the door.
Like all franchises, EA’s sports games began with the best intentions. Standout favorites like NHL ’94 applied a new sense for licensing to the timeless blueprint of that era of vintage sports games. Within a generation’s time, this had become the industry norm, manifesting itself in EA’s motto ‘it’s in the game’, which soon became ‘because it’s sure as hell not in anyone else’s game.’ In 2004, they became the first publisher to buy exclusive rights to a major sports league, with the NFL. Today, EA holds exclusive rights to the NFL, NCAA, AFL, FIFA, PGA, Wimbledon, ESPN, etc. Where they’re unable to win in sales by a large margin or anyone else owns the official license, EA rarely ships a sports game. Where they own the license and have consumers by the balls, they’ll sometimes ship a few titles of the same sport, within a calender year.
When EA wants something from the consumer, they’re good about making sure it’s known. They’ve single-handedly created the online pass on consoles with Project $10 and filled every release with micro-transactions, server rentals, and player boosts. It’s been several years since most people could say for sure that they’ve bought a complete product from EA, as they’ve been a big proponent of day-one DLC, and often hold off the most essential features for post-release (see: the best Battlefield 3 maps). But when they’re answering to shareholders – regardless of the end effect on the consumer – EA may be the most innovative in the industry. They nickel-and-dime consumers around every turn, without paying attention to the effect on the experience. When it comes to consumer interests, EA doesn’t care if it drags the industry down with it, so long as there’s nothing left to monetize when it’s gone.